The prospects of a hard winter forecast by some many as far back as September seems to be diminishing by each and every day as the days become gleefully longer. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a particularly mild winter either but it has been one of particular ups and downs. It has been very much in sequence, one minute it has been blowing a rain festooned gale, the next a tranquil pleasant winter’s day. It’s never really settled into a true winter pattern it has never been neither warm nor cold. There still is of course time for a sting in the tale as last year showed us but on the whole we have generally missed the worst of the bad weather this winter has provided.
This time last year I was striving to discover who the ‘flowerpot mugger’ that was invading my garden until I had discovered a rapacious singleton badger with a penchant for bulbs. It has never really made much of a habit, unfortunately, of visiting my garden but it does return every now and again as the flower pots and other excavations do tell.
It has been a strange winter so far stuck in somewhat of a limbo with the weather and this seems to be represented in the garden birds. Although we have plenty of dunnocks, robins blackbirds and tits in the garden there is a very conspicuous lack of seed eaters about, I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘spuggy’ or a chaffinch in the garden. Usually the local house variety is joined by several tree sparrows but this year none of either inhabit their usual spots in the leylandii; and yet if I go not too far away and the bushes heave with them. I do hope they are just making use of the abundant natural food sources available.
It has of course been very wet and this has led to a lot of extra unwanted guests, I’ve seen quite few rats this year especially in the more public places like the country parks where there is never any shortage of food from those that think they are doing wildlife a favour by dumping loads of bread in the water for the ‘ducks’. Don’t get me started on that one again it is so irresponsible and I have had to advise several local authorities this winter on rat control and water vole issues as a result ‘feeding the ducks’.
As February dawns the sun gets that little bit stronger and the first spring plants poke their heads above ground, the rooks return to the tree top rookery’s and the mistle thrush sings his mournful out of tune melody but as I said it’s a strange been a strange winter and the ‘storm cock’ has been singing since December and the snowdrops first bloomed in early January. Most however are sticking to the time table and the rooks are just starting to filter back now as are the herons and ravens too.
The other predictable anthem of this part of the year is the fox, with its yelps screams and barks the breeding season for vulpines is in full swing. As if I needed reminding as it is not enough that their pungent odours hang on the morning air they have been serenading me for several nights too. Interesting to watch though in the half light of the park opposite, at least three protagonists have been at it of late, two dogs and a vixen. They fight, she watches and then off they trot for a midnight fandango yickering away till the early hours.
February is usually a good month, weather wise too, with high pressures giving quite a few frosts and stunning sunsets and usually some very large flocks of wood pigeon to control on my neighbours winter oil seed rape crops. I heard him trying to disperse then just this week with a scarer and upwards of 2000 birds lifted from his fields but they just moved further along. So I will be paying them a visit soon to bolster my summer barbie meat rations, such an under estimated meat and before we know it spring will be really here and I can head to the allotment again and get those first plantings in the ground. Early tatties under plastic is my aim this year served with fresh salad leaves and sautéed pigeon breast yum yum delicious.
Any way enough of such frivolities what else can we look forward to this month. A look into the skies will show migrating ducks and geese now starting to head back north, widgeon and pink footed geese head to their summer artic homes. Redwing and fieldfare, by the end of the month, will also be congregating ready for their move to Scandinavia and bit by bit the other winter visitors will be following them throughout March and then before we know it the summer visitors will be arriving.
On the floor look for typical early plant species like snowdrop and crocuses but also for less iconic species like butterbur, coltsfoot and winter aconites. But as always whatever your up to enjoy it and make the most of any nice days to get out and enjoy the countryside near you.
Well I hope I left you all on tender hooks as to what the ‘flowerpot mugger’ was, just what was turning over my shrubbery. Well on the night in question just as I was closing down for the night, the security lamp out the back came on, nothing unusual in that one it is a bit faulty and with all the winter weather it often comes on at the slightest movement. However, there skulking at the bottom of the garden a grey shadow, clearly outlined in the dim light as I looked through the kitchen window on the lawn was a badger, yep that’s right a badger.
Now that may not seem unusual or rare to some but around where I live your more likely to see a Siberian tiger than a badger thanks to years of persecution, firstly from game keepers and then redundant pitmen with nothing better to do with their time. All the setts in at least a 10 mile radius were dug to oblivion many many years ago; so where had this fellow come from? Badgers are notoriously slow to recolonise former or new areas, something the government fails to recognise under its nonsensical cull. This fellow’s origin will always remain a mystery, which is kind of nice in these no all see all days, cameras removed, for my eyes only now!
Whatever the reasons for its presence and its origin it is a more than welcome addition to the garden I just hope it avoids the terrible threesome! I know now why they were going ballistic at its first appearance, their age old nemesis brazenly sitting in their garden eating peanut scraps. It’s probably at far more of a risk from the number of cars that rat run down my street these days so lets hope it stays safe.
Winter will still be slow to release its grip and February can often be one of the coldest months but there are signs already that spring is just around the corner. As I write this in late January the first lapwings have already returned to their sodden fields, the first rooks are blowing precariously around the topmost branches in their ancient rookery sites and my neighbourhood lunatic, a mistle thrush has been belting out his unchimely dulcet tones since the first days of January hit the calendar which was when the first snowdrops poked their heads above ground only to be covered in snow for nearly three weeks.
It has been an interesting winter; falling into the usual unpredictable pattern of cold icy conditions or wet warm and windy, but then again it’s always been like that. I was read some old diary entries the other day which read along the lines of ‘tried to go fishing but it hasn’t stopped raining all week river is flooded’ July 1982; ‘11 degrees January 4th caught 5lb of roach from pond’ 1992; match called off pond frozen with 6ins of snow January 14th 1992; and my favourite ‘pigeons frozen to kale tops minus 14 went home cold’ January 1987. A pattern that seemed to continue throughout the nineties and naughty’s, so nowt new there! The problem of living in a temperate climate next to the sea I suppose, oh for some nice straight forward continental weather; cold winters and hot summers absolute bliss.
This changeable weather has its merits though one or two nice vagrants and behaviour traits occur in cold weather. My resident ‘cheeky Charlie’ the fox has now taken to sitting at the end of the garden watching the kitchen window for movement and even, ‘as caught on cctv’, pressing his nose up against the conservatory window to rile the terriers. He is a handsome beast and im sure of little worry to any unguarded children in the estate, as one of my ill-informed neighbours suggested, I fear his antics may not endear him to my terrier pack if they get the chance, as it is one thing for an occasional visit from old bill brock irritating them but constant taunting by ‘Charlie’ may be his undoing one day I fear. Still he is very handsome resplendent in his thick winter coat and extra bushy tail, his mocking rolls in the snow make me grin and make for some decent images to add to my burgeoning fox collection.
Trips around my locality also produced some superb snow buntings on the coast this year, who have been very obliging little film stars and the funniest looking short eared owl you have ever seen, cock-eyed as sin, how it has survived is beyond me.
So that’s it really, it’s always a quiet at this time of the year but there are always surprises and wonders to those of you with an eye or the energy to get out. Things are however starting to change and it won’t be long before the mornings will be filled with birdsong and the first spring migrants arrive but let’s hope for a drier one than last year’s wash out. However, you should always beware the sting in the tale as my old mar used to say, winters not over till the fat birds sing.
Kevin O’Hara is a Conservation Officer with Northumberland Wildlife Trust.
Category: Northumbria Wildlife